Monday, April 24, 2017

Fighting Artwashing

Historic Boyle Heights
Boyle Heights, California
Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a new week and fresh subjects to talk about.  Let us give a big round of applause to all the scientists and those who love fact-based knowledge for coming out to the March for Science.  Science is key to making everyday things work.  Without science, buildings and ill-conceived border walls cannot stand up.  Yours truly urges all of you to support fact-based knowledge when and wherever you can.  On to today's topic: Boyle Heights.

Boyle Heights is a historically immigrant working class neighborhood in East Los Angeles.  Originally called Paredon Blanco (White Bluff), when California was still part of Mexico, by the 1950s Boyle Heights was once of the most racially and thnically diverse communities.  It was home Jews, Latinos, Russians, Yugoslav (Serbian and Croatian), Portuguese, and Japanese immigrants.  Today, it is predominantly Latino.

Jewish Boyle Heights mural
Photograph by Shmuel Gonzales
In May 2016, the nonprofit art gallery PSSST was getting ready to open in Boyle Heights, just across the Los Angeles River from the Arts District.  Instead of celebrating opening day, the gallery was greeted by protesters banging on drums, waving signs, chanting in English and Spanish "We don't need galleries, need higher salaries;  ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! At one point during the protest, someone lobbed feces at the window, according to the owners; finally a neighbor summoned the police.

Natalie Delgadillo writes in her CityLab article, "The Neighborhood That Went to War Against Gentrifiers", "This was not the first, last, or angriest protest against talliers popping up in Boyle Heights, but it would turn out to be a milestone: Last week, PSSST announced its shuttering."  A video of part of the protest can be seen at #PSSTOutOfBH  In a statement, the gallery gave the following reason for its closing:

Out young nonprofit struggled to survive through constant attacks...Our staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in-person...we could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.  (; date accessed Apr. 24, 2017)

PSSST Gallery
Photograph by Matt Stromberg
Boyle Heights 
Natalie Delgadillo writes, "PSSST's closing is the latest development in a pitched battle around art and gentrification in Boyle Heights."  On the western edge of the neighborhood, new galleries have been opening along Anderson Road, overflowing from the Arts District and the accompanying threat of displacement.  This, at the least, is how the residents see it.  The term most frequently use is "artwashing."

What is "art washing?"  Angel Luna, a resident and member of the the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, defines it as

Artwashing is the use of art and artistic labor perpetuate and enable gentrification.  

BHAAAD, together with Defend Boyle Heights ( and Serve the People LA ( have accused the galleries of being the forerunner for new development and the possibility of displacing long-term residents.  The groups have goranized marches, held protests, and worked to make life as difficult as possible for new businesses and their clientele.  The anti-gentirifiers claimed victory for the movement with PSSST closed their doors.  both BHAAD and DBH released a celebratory statement on their websites (links above), after the gallery announced its closure.

DBH: On PSSST Gallery
Natalie Delgadillo reports, "As cities nationwide struggle with issues of affordable housing, new development, and displacement, disputes over gentrification are common."  The difference here is the protesters's tactics.  Granted, throwing feces at windows is a little extreme but this kind of confrontational, combative, and determined approach along with calling people for condemnation and physically chasing unwanted visitors has been protestors's preferred method.  British newspaper The Guardian (; date accessed Apr. 24, 20177) published a widely read article on April 19, 2016, "Hope everyone pukes on your artisanal treats" written by Rory Carroll.  Mr. Carroll described members of Serve the People chasing an experimental opera company performance from a local park.  Mr. Carroll wrote:

An opera company which tried to stage a performance at the park was drowned out by by shouts, whistles and a brass band... (Ibid)

They left nasty messages for realtors, 

I hope everyone pukes on your artisanal treats.

The Sixth Street Bridge (demolished)
In December of 2015, a few weeks after the opera company fled the neighborhood, a group of urban planning student students were intercepted by STPLA, insisting they leave.  Mr. Carroll spoke with doctoral candidate Karl Baumann, one of the tour organizer and no fan of gentrification, who told him,

None of us were property owners or had any interest in buying property...It's like this reversal of race-based housing covenants and nimby policies in rich white areas...I wouldn't use those tactics...But as an outsiders I can't tell them what does or doesn't make sense in their community.  They assume the works unless proven otherwise.

Santa Cecila

Not all residents agree with the militant approach.  Steven Almazan, a local school teacher told CityLab over a year ago (,

Some groups have found very extreme ways to show that they're against changes in the neighborhood, ways that show this place is only fora very specific group of people...The neighborhood shouldn't say, 'Get out-this place is mine.' You want to find a balance.  We want investment from the city here.

More established advocacy groups such as the East Los Angeles Community Corporation ( have favored a compromised-based approach to creating affordable housing developments in the neighborhood and "trying to scare tenants better deals during evictions and displacements."  However, after many years of work, they faced criticism for "forcing resident outs and planning unwanted developments."

The Brooklyn Theater
Photograph by Leo Jarzomb courtesy of the Los Angeles Times
Boyle Heights, California
On the contrary, organizations like BHAAAD and DBH are not interested in conversation or compromise, only total capitulation.  Angel Luna told Ms. Delgadillo:

BHAAAD has pursued militant and aggressive tactics...We chose these tactics because we understand that city city council members, politicians, and no-profiteers aren't going to advocate for us, and we have to fight back.

In turn, the groups have engendered criticism for targeting artists, particularly the long-time art space Self-Help Graphics and Art ( has become enmeshed in the controversy.  The beloved space has been accused of assisting the new galleries as they come into the neighborhoods.  Regardless of the criticism, BHAAAD and DBH remain resolute.  Mr. Luna continues,

We believe that attacking the galleries us a useful strategy,...,because we are directly attacking the amenities that developers are trying use to attract new people into Boyle Heights.

"Walking through Boyle Heights"
Natalie Delgadillo reports, "Last September, protests staged the widest-reaching demonstration yet: Dozens of residents marched out to what's now know as 'Gallery Row' on Anderson Road, disrupting several exhibition opening and serving all the galleries with mock eviction notices."  On their Facebook page, the groups described their action:

Gallery attendee were harassed and harangued, pelted with water and bottles and an endless barrage of verbal assault.  They were stopped in their tracks, surrounded, chased back to their vehicles and out of the areas around Anderson Rd where the majority of these galleries have begun opening up.  The galleries themselves were surrounded while members of the community banged on their windows, entered their galleries to smash bottles, and continued the barrage of verbal assualt [sic].  (

BHAAAD posted several Facebook and YouTube videos of the incident.

1st and Cummings, circa March 30, 2010
Boyle Heights
These tactics have yielded results.  Boyle Heights has seen some changes over the past few years, and rents have gone up.  Yet, it remains a firmly working-class Latino neighborhood that is managing to maintain its identity even as surrounding neighborhoods like Echo Park and Highland Park continue to gentrify.  The shuttering of PSSST Gallery is proof, according to the more combative groups, "that they're successfully turning the tide."

Dana Cuff, professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA, told Ms. Delgadillo,

[The gallery closing] does point out that the community's efforts to slow gentrification are more effective than they might felt six months ago.  Six months ago there was a sense that the Arts District was going to push through Boyle Heights.

Congregation Talmud Torah (Breed Street Shul)
Boyle Heights, California
Be that as it may, Prof, Cuff says it is too soon for Boyle Heights to declare victory.  Prof. Cuff continues,

It's hard to use measure like failure and success in this, in my mind.  Gentrification is massive economic and real estate city force.  Gentrification is a massive economic and real estate city force.  One gallery closing isn't something that you could call a success or a reversal.

Angel Luna said, "BHAAAD and other community groups have that point clear.  They're celebrating PSSST's closure, but won't rest until all the galleries are gone."  Until then, they will keep fighting any incoming business or development project that they feel is inappropriate for neighborhood.  Ms. Delgadillo cites the 2016 closure of Carnitas Michoacán, a local staple taco place to accommodate a Panda Express; "it ended up closing down despite protests."

The really complicated works is deciding what kinds of businesses and development projects are appropriate for the neighborhood.  Housing is in short supply in Boyle Heights (like all of L.A.) and unemployment is 8.6 percent, over the city median.  Thus the question becomes, "How do you allow investment without encouraging population change and displacement?"

Angel Luna's response is "very carefully."  He said, "Boyle Heights groups do want new housing, but they want it to be truly affordable, with all rents calculated for median income in Boyle Heights, which is just $34,000 per year, compared to L.A. County's media of $55,000."  They do not want any new development that will lead to displacement of long-term resident-and where it must, they demand a right of return.  Anything less, according to Mr. Luna, is tantamount to a compromise with gentrification.  He said,

Angel Luna told Natalie Delgadillo,

We want things like...a new laundromat on the corner of Whittier and Boyle.  We want our streets and sidewalks fixed...We shouldn't have to wait until white people live here for someone to care enough to fix the sidewalks.

No comments:

Post a Comment